Monday 30 May 2011

Seasonal Obsessions

An Englishman's summer obsessions are these:
  1. watching the weather
  2. watching the cricket
  3. watching out for summer migrant birds
Well, those are my obsessions anyway.

Firstly, the weather. It's actually been raining this afternoon as is evidenced by the above picture. It hasn't rained properly in my part of the world for the last two months and everything, especially in my garden, is looking rather thirsty. The ground is looking like this:

Now I know that's no big deal if you're reading this in Adelaide or Texas but this is England in May.

Then there's Cricket, that strange pastime which usually causes the heavens to open. England have just recorded a remarkable victory, but that's not what I've ben thinking about. I've been thinking about village cricket, which bears as much relation to international cricket as a barn dance to the Bolshoi ballet.

I was watching a match on Parker's Piece in the centre of Cambridge. They'd obviously been watching a lot of first class matches on TV and were "trying to do things proper, like". At least, they all had white trousers and walked around clapping their hands like real cricketers. All rather different from the first game I ever saw on a cow pasture in Caldecote. Some of the men wore their work boots and the ball had to be frequently retrieved from the brook, having been deposited there by a red-faced farmer who may have lacked timing and technique but made up for it with brute strength. Or at Grantchester where the opening bowler had to be summoned from a lunchtime drinking session in the pub.

All that remains of Grantchester's team is the old pavilion, now used as an artist's studio, and the roller which was used to prepare the pitch.

And finally. Turtle Doves are in decline and you can spend a lot of time searching for them. Even if you can hear their gentle purring song it can still be difficult to catch sight of one. Or you can come home as I did this afternoon and see one walking about on the grass just outside the window. Thanks once again to my neighbour and his feeding station. I just hope he saw it too.

Take care.

Friday 27 May 2011

England's Oldest Road

If you look at a geological map of England you'll notice a band of chalk which runs from Lyme Bay on the south coast up to the Norfolk coast near Hunstanton. In prehistoric times this outcrop would have provided early man with easier travelling than the thickly forested lowlands. If the chalk was ever covered with trees it was much more sparsely vegetated and the chalk would have been a good deal less muddy underfoot than the clay vales. Whether there was a definite track in those early times has been a subject of much debate, but what seems likely is that a number of roughly parallel ways grew up along the chalk ridge. Many are now followed by modern roads or footpaths.

The track, or tracks, were known as the Icknield Way, possibly deriving their name from the Iceni tribe. Today there is a walking route, a bridleway for horse-riders and also a cycle track along much of the route, all with many alternative routes and diversions. I started out from Letchworth this morning, furiously pedalling on the trail of those ancient footsteps. I was soon in the village of Ickleford, which gets its name from the fact that the Icknield Way fords a small stream at that point.

I laboured on in drizzly, grey conditions along wide grassy tracks lined with wild dog-rose. The old farm-workers used to say when they saw the dog-rose in bloom "That'll be six week till harvest, boy". But this year it started flowering in the middle of May so the calculation has gone wildly astray. A bit more uphill cycling brought me to the foot of Deacon Hill.

I padlocked the trusty machine to a gate and walked up the hill. The views from the top are surprisingly extensive considering its modest elevation. With perfect timing the sun began to break through the clouds as I arrived at the top. As I sat taking in the panorama two Red Kites flew into view, slowly circling and causing a great commotion among the Rooks feeding on the pastureland below.

Belted Galloways were being used to graze the grassland. These animals are said to be the ideal cattle to keep the grass short and encourage the growth of wild flowers. I cast my inexpert eye over the flora and got quite excited when I thought I'd discovered a rare gentian though I now realise it was just a stunted Clustered Bellflower. It looked good even so.

I rode back by a different route through fields and woodlands, mostly on farm tracks and minor roads.

Take care.

Thursday 26 May 2011


The observant among you may have noticed a list which has appeared in the side panel of this blog, calling itself "Nature Bookshelf". It's just a selection of some of the more interesting books I've read or re-read recently.

Sneaking in at the bottom of the list is "The Cloudspotter's Guide" by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. The reason it only snuck in in last place is not because it's inferior to the others; it's just that it doesn't quite fit the category. In fact it doesn't fit any category, it's a one-off, an original creation, a unique fluorescence.

On the face of it the author takes us on a guided tour of the different types of cloud, one chapter  for each. But this is no school textbook; there's poetry, philosophy, art appreciation, ornithology, flights of fancy, daydreams, odd anecdotes, even odder anecdotes....

He asks the question "Why does rain fall from up above?" and remembers that Frankie Lymon asked the same question in the song "Why Do Fools Fall In Love". He then conducts an imaginary explanation to Mr Lymon, as I'm sure nobody did at the time, and concludes that Frankie's decline into drug addiction and an early death might have been avoided if someone had only taken the time and trouble to explain some simple meteorology to the poor boy. It all makes perfect sense I assure you!

Even if you don't remember the science the book leaves you looking at clouds differently and appreciating their beauty.

The picture above is a "fallstreak hole" and is apparently not that rare though they are usually circular rather than looking as though a submarine has just fallen through the clouds. 

Altocumulus stratiformis perlucidus, I think!

"Sundogs" caused by sunlight passing through ice-crystals in the upper atmosphere.

Good old cumulo-nimbus starting to build up.

After an evening storm.
Take care.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Swanwatch (4)

Mr and Mrs Swan of The Millpond, Grantchester proudly announce the arrival of an as yet unidentified number of small, fluffy cygnets, hatched around 23rd May 2011. Mother and babies appear to be doing well. Further bulletins will be issued in the coming weeks. In the meantime the family have this fine view from their nest site.

Take care.

Sunday 22 May 2011

More Wonders Of The Roadside

Since my recent post about the curiosities to be found on the roadsides and verges of rural Cambridgeshire I've been on the lookout for similar items. Here are some things I've spotted recently.

The Meadow

At the end of Grantchester Meadows, just before the footpath/cycleway enters the suburbs of Cambridge, is this lovely flowery meadow. It is preserved as an example of a traditional watermeadow and has some attractive flora. Right in the centre of the field stands what looks like a lamppost. And a lamppost is exactly what it is. "What's it doing there, pray tell us, Mr Blogger". Well, in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties this meadow was flooded during the winter months just as it always had been, but not just to encourage an early growth of grass as was the traditional purpose of such watermeadows. During the harshest months of winter there was ice-skating to be had on the payment of 6d for an evenings skating. The lamp was erected to light this improvised ice-rink. The old toll-booth where the money was collected is still standing too.

The Oldest Milestone

This stone was put in its present position in 1729, that is shortly after the adoption of the standard mile of 1760 yards. Before that the length of a mile varied from one place to another and was often a matter of guesswork. This gave rise to the story of an English traveller in Ireland complaining, "The miles are very long in this part of the country", to which a local replied "Ah, they may be long, sir, but they're also narrow!"


I pass this cottage on my way to work each morning. This morning being Sunday there was no one about so I climbed up onto the low garden wall, peered over the hedge and took this photo. Very twee, I know, but still very pretty.

Stocks And Whipping Post

I also pass these every morning. They date from the days when each parish was responsible for handing out their own punishments to hooligans and ne'er-do-wells. They were last used in 1860 as a punishment for brawling in church. Behind them is the base of a former prayer-cross, where services were held prior to the building of churches.

Take care.

Friday 20 May 2011

The Pictures On My Wall (3)

When we think about the coast we picture in our mind's eye a place where the land ends and the sea begins. Usually we expect a line of cliffs to clearly mark the boundary. At the foot of the cliffs is a nice beach. The tide goes in and out, alternately hiding and exposing the strip of sand, but there is never any doubt as to which is sea and which is land. The reality, though, is seldom as simple as we imagine....

....especially if that reality is the North Norfolk coast. Here there is an area of transition as much as a mile wide in places - there is land that seems to want to be water and there is sea that is striving to become dry land. Sand-bars swell up from below the oceans and muddy creeks cut new channels as they wind lethargically down to the sea. You can not even trust your own eyes in this wild and windswept world. A shimmering, glassy stretch of water might just turn out to be wet sand lit by the low sun, while a harmless area of beach may give way beneath your feet. 

What is an alien environment to us though is heaven on earth to so many birds. Waders probe the mud, egrets stalk the shallows, gulls scavenge at the water's edge and flocks of dunlin or knot twist and turn over the salt-marsh. In winter snow buntings and shore larks might be encountered on the beaches while out to sea rafts of scoters or long-tailed ducks may be glimpsed offshore.

And I love it. It's difficult stuff to photograph though. Mostly it's just too vast, too flat and too undifferentiated to make a good composition. It doesn't stop me from trying though and I've got plenty of photographs that look like nothing in particular to prove it! But I think this shot achieves what I intended to show. I like the swirling patterns of the channels in the foreground mud, the way that the distant sandbanks (Scolt Head Island actually) seem to float above the creek and the two figures (if you can see 'em) look lost in this endless no man's land.

The picture also seems to have taken over the room which houses it as the walls and furniture in the room echo the pale blue and rusty browns of the photo. There's a model of a wading bird and various shells on the sideboard and one other photo, also of the Norfolk coast.

Take care.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Swanwatch (3)

The nest - deserted

It's too early for the cygnets to have hatched out but there was no sign of either the male or female swan from the mill bridge. Maybe they have been scared off by somebody's dog, perhaps the number of passers-by gawping at them from the bridge has frightened them away. I lingered on the bridge as long as I could but no swan returned to the eggs.

The major cause of the loss of swan broods is said to be vandalism. In recent years as many as 100 swans have been killed in this senseless way on the River Lea in London alone. It's not a new problem either there are records of swan taunting going back through the centuries. There have also been a number of cases reported recently of swans being killed "for the pot" mainly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, some of whom do not share our views on conservation and see any wild animal or bird as "fair game".

OK, I'll stop kidding you, though the above thoughts were running through my mind as I stood alone on the bridge waiting in vain for the return of the pair. Next day the swans were back at the nest site once more so I hope all is well.

Back home

Take care.

Monday 16 May 2011

Meldreth Bird Walk

On Saturday morning a small group of people from the village gathered in the church car park to enjoy a bird walk in Melwood, our local nature reserve. Our leader was Mike Foley who volunteers for both the RSPB and the BTO . Mike began by telling us a bit about the British Trust For Ornithology - how and why it collects data on the changing bird populations in the British Isles. I must confess that although I've sent records in to the BTO there were aspects of their work which I hadn't appreciated.

Just standing there on the roadside it was amazing how many birds we could hear singing. In fact it was difficult trying to separate the different songs as they all seemed to blend together after a while. We set off along the footpath to Topcliffe Mill, which is often a good place to see Grey Wagtails, though this morning we were out of luck. We passed through the stile and into the meadow; Swallows were skimming low and Pied Wagtails were hopping about in search of insects. 

Standing in the wooded area alongside the little River Mel we could pick out the songs of Blackcap and Song Thrush. A little later one of the group managed to spot a Buzzard on a very distant fencepost. We wandered on looking and listening but also engaging in occasional quiet conversation. We thought we could hear the sound of nestlings calling from one of the many bird boxes but as soon as we stopped to listen of course everything fell silent.

Just as we were about to end our walk an angry squawk came ringing through the trees, such an indignant cry could only come from a Jay. We raised binoculars and could see the bird in question hopping about madly in the foliage. Eventually we could make out the cause of the Jay's cursing and swearing; there in the branches was a Tawny Owl roosting and seemingly quite unperturbed by the racket. He opened one eye lazily to survey the scene. Whether on account of one angry bird or a dozen inquisitive humans the owl decided to change its position. This only encouraged the Jay to further irate expletives. The owl however was now comfortable and refused to budge; the Jay flew off in disgust. It's unusual to get such a good sighting of a Tawny Owl in daylight. An excellent end to our stroll.

Take care.

Sunday 15 May 2011

The Egret Has Landed

Early this morning two Little Egrets flew over my home. A sighting which, although unusual enough to make a nice start to the day, is hardly likely to set the birding world alight. Twenty years ago it would have been a different story. At around that time I was down in Hampshire on an activity holiday with a group of boys from school and, while on a boating trip, a Little Egret was pointed out to us. It was one of only a handful of the species which had begun to settle on the South Coast.

A month or so ago I was in Norfolk and was approached by a fellow bird-watcher with the usual question "Anything about?" "Not a lot, plenty of Avocets and Egrets though". Avocets: another bird which has spread from just a few early colonisers in the last half-century.

Little Egret
That's what seems to be happening all the time; the ebb and flow of different species. More Red Kites, Buzzards, Goldfinches and Collared Doves, but decreasing numbers of Grey Partridges, Skylarks and Cuckoos, to name but a few of the winners and losers. Some birds, like the Red Kite, have benefited from man's intervention while others, like the Collared Dove have made it here on their own. No doubt some of the birds which are struggling to hang on would have lessened in numbers even without the environmental changes wrought by mankind.

Our attitudes towards different birds, and particularly the attitudes of birders, has always puzzled me. For some reason a bird which has arrived here as a result of human activity - birds which have been bred for shooting purposes or escaped from wildfowl collections, for example - are seen as some kind of lesser being and "don't really count" as wild birds. But Little Egrets, which have probably prospered as a result of global warming, and Red Kites, which have been deliberately bred and released by conservationists are something to get excited about.

What really gets people travelling hundreds of miles to glimpse though, are the poor little creatures that, either through bad navigation or being blown off-course by storms, have ended up shivering and bedraggled on some remote headland. I don't get it, why is a bird which has the initiative and resourcefulness to escape from captivity and then retains enough of its instinctive behaviour to survive in an alien environment, any less interesting than a lost and probably doomed stray.

Whatever the answers are to the questions posed in the above paragraphs I was extremely grateful for the two pure white birds, kissed by the dawn's early rays, that flew over my house this morning.

Take care.

On The Level - National Cycle Route 11

Friday was a glorious day to be out on bicycle. I'd decided to try out the "nearly completed" section of National Cycle Route 11 between Waterbeach and Ely, also taking in two of my favourite birdwatching sites, Wicken Fen and Kingfisher Bridge. We're talking crossing The Fens here so the land was dead flat and, just to make things easier still, there was a pleasant breeze at my back. The National Cycle Network is a rapidly developing system of routes designed to take the cyclist away from the busy roads and onto minor tracks and lanes which have been made cycle-friendly. The section I tried out crosses the National Trust's ambitious plan to make a huge area to the north and east of Cambridge into one huge nature reserve.

The River Cam at Waterbeach

I started off following the River Cam where the smell of frying bacon wafted up from one of the boats moored on the far bank. This stretch of water was once a busy commercial transport route with all kinds of goods transported upriver to Cambridge. The villages near to the river were connected by artificial waterways, called locally "lodes", allowing them to act as minor inland ports. I pedalled along Bottisham Lode and a more perfect, peaceful scene could hardly be imagined. Cows grazed in the fields, bees buzzed among the wildflowers, chiffchaffs chiffchaffed and cuckoos cuckooed. 

Following the lode

From there I crossed White Fen and Tubney Fen, mostly on new cycle paths, all beautifully signposted, which crossed other lodes on newly constructed bridges. In the fields were the piebald ponies of travelling people who dwell in caravans in these parts. Gypsies and travellers have always favoured these "painted horses", because they could easily recognise individuals and pick out any unsound animals which they had traded in the past.

The track suddenly became rough and a sign told me that up ahead was a bridge where I'd have to carry my bike up (and then down) some steep steps. Once that obstacle was surmounted I was at Wicken Fen, England's oldest nature reserve and one of the few bits of Fenland never to have been drained for agriculture. I spent a couple of hours walking around in perfect spring weather. Birds seen included Marsh Harrier, Cuckoo, Garden Warbler and innumerable Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers. There will probably be a post about Wicken Fen at some future date - it's a place I visit quite often - but until then here are a few photos to whet your appetite.

The old windpump              Marsh Orchid (?)  

         Yellow Iris              Honey bee hive 

From Wicken "I digressed a little" from the official route because Kingfisher Bridge is too good to miss when you're so close. If Wicken Fen is the oldest nature reserve then Kingfisher Bridge is one of the newest. Started in 1995 as a result of one man's vision it is rapidly becoming a superb site with some splendid little hides which give a panoramic view all over the reserve.

There's also another less obvious hide made entirely from willow which has taken root and has produced perhaps the only "living hide" in the world.

From Kingfisher Bridge I improvised a route back to join the National Cycle Route. This involved me having to lift my bike over various obstacles and avoiding a bull in a field before joining the proper route. From there on it was "plain sailing" all the way into Ely.

Take care.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

In The Garden

Since Dad passed away last year I seem to have inherited his garden - but not, alas, his "green fingers". It has been a steep learning curve for me as I have progressed from no-sort-of-gardener-at-all to a-pretty-poor-sort-of-gardener. However I have had some successes as plants have managed to thrive in spite of the lack of tender care which they deserve. Just occasionally I find I've done something right quite by mistake - a more spiritual person might conclude that Dad was looking over me in those moments.

I planted some foxglove seeds last year. According to the packet they were going to flower in the first year; they didn't of course, they waited till this year as nature had always intended, but look as though they're planning a fine show. And they do attract bees and other pollinators.

The Californian poppies are also flourishing in the unusually warm, dry weather we've had so far this year. This photo looks like I've been adding special effects but is actually just a cheap camera trying to deal with an extremely contrasty subject.

I also bought some other plants a few weeks ago. They were not in pots and had been stored in a way that deprived them of light. Despite this I was assured that all it needed was to be laid on some well stamped down soil and watered. Once established I intend to walk all over these plants and cut off the growing tips about once a week - yes, I laid some turf. What remarkable stuff grass is to survive the treatment we give it. The watering is often down to my brother, Les and he won't forgive me if I fail to include a picture of the pansies he planted.

             Take care

Monday 9 May 2011

"The Open Road"

Last night I was searching for some postage stamps; I know I've got some somewhere. In amongst the dried-up biros, broken nail-clippers, odd socks and used train tickets I found this little notebook with "The Open Road" written neatly on the cover.

It's a booklet in which I collected quotes which caught my eye and my imagination in various books I'd read. It takes its title (if "title" is not too grand a word for the ballpoint scribble on the front cover) from the quote on the first page

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
                                                                    Walt Whitman
At the time I spent every holiday walking the footpaths and byways of Britain, sometimes with a friend but quite often alone. This little book nestled in a corner of my rucksack pocket and tended to get brought out at those inevitable low moments when the rain sheeted down or the promised pub turned out to be closed.
On a long walk there is within us a small lamp that now and again burns low.
                                                                                     Hillaire Belloc
There is a Tibetan saying that on a long walk obstacles such as rain, hail and snow are the work of demons intent on testing the integrity of travellers and eliminating the faint-hearted among them.
                                                                            John Hillaby
It was good to know that others had experienced the frustrations and occasional boredom on long journeys afoot, as far too often accounts of walking in the countryside are depressingly uplifting and cheery. But it was good to be returned to those happy hours of striding out across the tops without a care in the world.
I must be rising and I must be going
On the roads of magic that stretch afar
By the random rivers so finely flowing
And under the restless star
                        Neil Munro
I love that - "random rivers so finely flowing"
Feet wet and lunch forgot -
     that's the way to travel
                            Gary Snyder
During that period of my life I walked many of the official long-distance paths of Britain - The Pennine Way, The Coast To Coast Walk, The West Highland Way, The Pembrokeshire Coast and others. I also made up routes of my own and sometimes just wandered about aimlessly in places like The Lake District, climbing a mountain then sitting on the summit and deciding where to head next - off to an adjoining peak or down to the valley for food or a pint. This little notebook is similarly serendipitous.
Corruption has never been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains.
                              Robinson Jeffers
The place you're at
Is your habitat
Everywhere else you're a foreigner.
                                               Ogden Nash
The longest journey starts with just one step
                                                 the Tao Te Ching
Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side
We are most of us too busy, too worried, too intent on proving ourselves right, too obsessed with ideas, to stand and stare.
                                           Bill Brandt (photographer)
There are pages more of this and I'm surprised how well I remember these words after so many years. Have you got any quotations which I should have included ?
stay together
learn the flowers
go light
    Gary Snyder
Take care.
(never did find those stamps).

Saturday 7 May 2011

A Walk In The Woods

May, as I'm sure everyone knew (no, I didn't know either), is "Walk In The Woods Month", a month long festival promoted by the Tree Council. Personally I don't need any encouragement to wander through the greenwood, especially in springtime, as followers of this blog are already aware. Here are a few photos from my local community woodland, "Melwood", with the little River Mel running through it.

Take care and have a nice walk.

Friday 6 May 2011

By The Roadside

Travelling by pedal-power you notice things that you'd miss if you were in a car. So here are a few wayside oddities and curiousities from rural Cambridgeshire.

The Fire-Engine House at Melbourn 

In the nineteenth century many villages would have their own volunteer fire brigade to put out any local blazes. The engine was either horse-drawn or pulled along by hand and equipped with a hand pump and buckets. As buildings were mainly of wooden construction with thatched roofs I can't imagine they would have had too many successful outcomes. The lettering on the door has been repainted; many other such buildings must slumber in anonymity.

Speckled Wood Butterfly

One of the few butterflies that has managed to increase in numbers in the last century and, in my opinion, as attractive as any brown butterfly could be. As their name suggests they love shady places and they blend in beautifully in the dappled sunlight. They live on a diet of honeydew and nectar which is certainly a lot more refined than the tastes of some other butterflies who like nothing better than fresh dung or rotting meat.

Milestone near Foxton

Put there to inform travellers that they are 7 miles from Cambridge and 48 miles from London, though the inscription is difficult to make out these days - especially when travelling past at 70 mph in a car! Several similar stones remain on roadsides recording the distance to Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge. Incidentally during World War II many of the milestones and signposts were buried in the hope of confusing any invading armies. I wonder if all the stones were recovered or if some remain beneath the ground.

"Big Pink", Haslingfield

This fine beast has appeared recently in a field beside a little-used road in the village of Haslingfield. He appears to be solidly constructed from roofing felt stretched over a wooden frame and might have originated as part of the local Scarecrow Festival. Or maybe someone just felt like making a giant model of a pig and standing it in a chicken field. As it has no apparent purpose, will generate no financial or social advantage for its maker, is not a copy of anyone else's work and gives pleasure to all who see it, I can only conclude that this is a rare example of pure art!

Take care.